There are three groups of people who inspire Fitsum (Fits) Petros, ‘18: her parents, her countrymen, and of course—superheroes. As a little girl growing up in Ethiopia, her passion for designing high-tech gadgets and equipment came from watching action movies and TV shows like American Inventor.

“The first time I watched Ironman, I just keep thinking — I want to build that suit,” she says. “In sixth grade, my friends and I were obsessed with the scene in James Bond when the car drives into the water, uses its wheels as propellers to float, and then turns into an airplane and flies. We tried to construct one using paper and an empty carton.”

Their design, Fits jokes, was pretty bad. But from those first scrap pieces of paper, sparked a lifelong passion for creating and building. As Fits grew, she recognized even more how technology had the power to impact the world for the better. For example, many rural parts of Africa still cook with open fire. A simple stove, she says, could transform many lives.

“What motivates me to work hard every day is the burning desire to see my nation’s evolution,” she says. “I want to be a leading part of the generation that brings about my country’s rebirth. I need to learn and invent. I need to experiment and research. It is a responsibility I carry with great pride.”

As a junior at Princeton, majoring in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, Fits is on her way to being part of that rebirth. After graduation, she may pursue a master’s degree before entering the industry. Later, Fits plans to return home where she hopes to make an impact on the growing tech industry.

That philosophy of giving back was learned by example. “My parents worked incredibly hard to build the life we had, inspired us to do something extraordinary with our lives, and give back with the knowledge we were so grateful to receive,” Fits says.

In high school, she thought about operating a company that manufactures cars. Fascinated with biology, Fits also considered a career in medicine.

Today, she hopes to combine her interests in anatomy and mechanics and start a biotech company back home. Currently, there are not enough specialized surgeons to perform complex surgeries at Ethiopian hospitals, such as kidney transplants. As a result, a tremendous amount of money is wasted on prolonged dialysis treatments. With more efficient technology and better infrastructure, many lives and resources could be saved. Fits is also interested in expanding the Ethiopian Space and Science community, perhaps by designing and building airplanes.

Last summer, to expand her knowledge, Fits pursued an internship in a different field—electrochemical engineering. Her team worked on building a receiver that would optimize the process of acoustically testing batteries. Their task was to design a battery tester that had an optimal frequency and better resolutions than the ones used in the lab. What they learned could be used to help test cell phone batteries and make them more efficient. The second half of the project was to analyze the acoustic data. Fits and her team used the data to better understand the battery’s properties, such as degradation and the cycle of testing.

“What fascinates me about building in any type of context is that tiny things can do extraordinary things,” she says. “You start with something that is so small and slow, you assimilate it, test it, retest it, and replicate it into something as big and fast as you want, something that you never thought was possible.”

“Fitsum has a quiet, sincere drive that imbues all of her work, and perhaps the best balance between an open mind and critical thinking I have seen in an undergraduate student,” says Dan Steingart, PhD, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “She is not jaded or dismissive, but at the same time she critically analyzes and probes everything: from aspects of what we covered in class to procedures in lab. As she gains expertise in batteries this only becomes better.”

The previous summer, Fits worked in the Planet Finders Lab setting up the tests for the star-shade prototype—a project funded by NASA. Star-shade is a method of looking at planets by having a petal launch in front of the satellite. It is intended to provide a better view of the planets by reducing the light from the nearby star. She helped build the 80-meter setup and determine the type of equipment, such as the interferometer, the reflecting lenses, and the vertical and horizontal mounts that should hold the star-shade prototype.

“Coming from an all-girls high school I had never even held a wrench. There was a bit of a learning curve, but I sat down with the team and we built this 80-meter tube from scratch,” Fits says. “It was a surreal experience. I would sit there, look at the sky and think to myself, ‘I am working on something for NASA.’”

Despite being more than 7,000 miles from home, Fits always finds ways to feel connected to her roots. Outside of her major, she serves as treasurer for the International Students Association, which she jokes mostly consists of giving out money for exotic foods. Fits happily obliges because it took her nearly six months to adjust to American food freshman year. She also formed an Ethiopian dance group with another student that performs on campus.

A couple of weeks ago, Fits had a reminder of how far her early designs have come. Her professor joked that building a hybrid car/plane was a useless pursuit.

“Of course, I had to tell him the story and explain what materials we used for our James Bond prototype,” she laughs. “He thought the idea was genius.”


~Carolyn Sayre